17 May 2015
I’m lounging alone on the screened-in back porch at S.’s dad’s place a few hours outside New York on a Sunday morning, browsing books, smoking an early pipe and on my third cup of coffee. (No one else is up yet.) The house — a 1950s ranch-style out-of-town place now long his and his wife’s home base, where S. spent a good deal of her teens and twenties — is packed with books. All the rooms — bathrooms, basement rooms, hallways included — have full bookshelves. It’s a writer’s haven. I have a bio of Hannah Arendt pulled from the guest room and a Penguin Graham Greene, from a stack of Penguin Graham Greenes in the basement, in front of me on the coffee table I’m propping my feet on.
We’re here, incidentally, to witness her dad’s debut tap-dancing recital: ‘Me,’ as he says, ‘and thirty five–to-eight-year-old girls.’ At age seventy, with a full career of ‘new journalism,’ novel-writing, and TV-writing and -producing under his belt (and on-going), he tells people this is the most fun he’s ever had.
At age forty-four, with a scant career of miscellaneous under-achievement in mid-progression and no property or savings to my name, I don’t know if this is the best I’ve ever had it, but gosh, I’ll take it. I’m very grateful to be sitting here, in such good company, surrounded by books and upstate countryside. I’d better be; I haven’t exactly earned this moment’s ease and sense of security.
I’m reflecting a good deal, lately, on Jewish-American life and on finding comfort in having a little place through significant-otherhood in a corner of it (on, to be clear, the thoroughly secular side). By birth and upbringing I’m very much an outsider here, of course; and by temperament, I suppose, I’m certain never to feel entirely at home with the culture of liberal cosmopolitanism that’s developed much of its now distinctively American character out of twentieth-century Jewish experience and creative energy. I’ll never be the thorough-going New Yorker S. is. But then, S. is a thorough-going New Yorker who’s also a convert to Evangelicalism — originally to Pentecostal-flavored, even Bible-belt-flavored Evangelicalism, in fact. Her dad has explored converting to Catholicism (and been put off from it, as she tells it — by a priest, no less). This urbane Jewish world, shaped by memory of conflict and ruin at least as much as by accession and triumph, is a world replete with inner tensions and shifts of perspective, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ in tireless dialogue. Not such a strange place for a twenty-first-century American-Christian discontent to find comfort, really.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, following a few paragraphs on Hannah Arendt’s New York circle in the preface to the biography on the table, extends Arendt’s comment on the life of the mind, here, curiously, to account for the character of her intimate social life. There’s something in it to account for mine as well, maybe, and that of not a few Christians making their way in the era of unsure Western dominance and rapid, unpredictable global change.
The friends of every sort and also the historical figures with whom Arendt felt special affinities, like Rosa Luxemburg and Rahel Varnhagen, had one characteristic in common: each was, in his or her own way, an outsider. In Hannah Arendt’s personal lexicon, wirkliche Menschen, real people, were ‘pariahs.’ Her friends were not outcasts, but outsiders, sometimes by choice and sometimes by destiny. In the broadest sense, they were unassimilated. ‘Social nonconformism,’ she once said bluntly, ‘is the sine qua non of intellectual achievement.’ And, she might well have added, also of human dignity. From situations in which social conformism prevailed, she made hasty exits, often with the aid of another of her stock phrases: ‘This place ist nicht für meiner Mutters Tochter;’ ‘To public relations I have an allergy;’ ‘Here there is nothing but a Rummel [uproar].’ Hannah Arendt maintained her independence and she expected her friends to do the same.